Into the West: Cornwall

Cornwall is a foreign country, they do things differently there.

A Neolithic dolmen above New Town in west Cornwall with the familiar outline of a 19th century tin mine engine house behind.

A Neolithic dolmen above New Town in west Cornwall with the familiar outline of a 19th century tin mine engine house behind.

As a soft easterner and Wessex archaeologist now united with Devon and Cornwall, it was time to travel to the uttermost west and find out something about it. This is based on two days last week looking with a stranger’s archaeological eyes on a new world.

The view from Cotehele, of the dovecote and the woodland garden that leads down to the River Tamar.

The view from Cotehele, of the dovecote and the woodland garden that leads down to the River Tamar.

When I started with the National Trust, I asked Tony, the old experienced curator, “which is your favorite property?” “Cotehele!” he said without blinking an eye and so it went on my list of places to visit.

We eventually got there, wound our way round Plymouth, crossed the Tamar and threaded our way along narrow roads. A medieval fortified manor house revamped in the Tudor period. A beautiful setting above the border river between Devon and Cornwall.

Cotehele medieval manor house. Cotehele river front lies below the steep slope of the wooded gardens to the right.

Cotehele medieval manor house. Cotehele river front lies below the steep slope of the wooded gardens to the right.

My 1977 guide book (which I dusted down.. found on the shelves of my home office Eastleigh Court… amongst others that had washed up there over the decades) summed up medieval Cotehele “in the south-west peninsula the landed classes still lived lives of semi-barbarity”. Not very PC but I guess stuff took time to get there. The Romans didn’t leave much of an impact and the Anglo-Saxons barely registered.

The place-names are different…very celtic.

Apparently there was a feud between the Cotehele Edgecombes and the Willoughby’s of Bere Ferrers across the river and his henchmen attacked Cotehele and in 1483 Richard Edgcumbe escaped his pursuers by putting a stone in his cap and throwing it in the river. Seeing the cap sinking they rode on thinking he had desperately drowned himself rather than be captured.

So Cornwall was a bit wild west but also very industrial. The mining industry here has World Heritage Site status. The craggy rocks are full of precious things. Cotehele had copper and arsenic mines and down at the water front beside the Tamar, we found mills and kilns where rock was burnt to create lime used for mortar and improve the quality of the local acid soils.

Map of Cornwall and the Godolphin Estate

Map of Cornwall and the Godolphin Estate

We headed further west to Godolphin. The family here made their money out of tin mining and the medieval house was upgraded in the 17th but there are many different phases to the house. One wing stops short as though the money ran out and the grand design was never completed. The guides in the King’s Hall told us about the house and the Godolphin family…there was so much more to be discovered. The Trust have not owned the house for long.

The various phases of Godolphin House. The Neo-classical house is unfinished,

The various phases of Godolphin House. The Neo-classical house is unfinished,

Cornwall is famous for its wild coasts so we went to Godrevy near Redruth. Here, excavations had found an Iron Age and Romano-British farmstead beneath the remains of the small medieval manor. No villas here though. The odd sherd of samian pottery but the native ’rounds’ continued into the Roman period.

Godrevy, a disused  stone-edged field boundary bank eroded by a footpath and cut away at the cliff edge.

Godrevy, a disused stone-edged field boundary bank eroded by a footpath and cut away at the cliff edge.

The field systems retain elements of their prehistoric form, small and irregular earth banks faced with stone. We found one eroded and cut by the sea cliff. This is a land of Neolithic dolmens and subterranean Iron Age fogous. I have much to learn. Even the WWII pill boxes were of igneous rock rather than my familiar brick and concrete.

Stone WWII pillbox guarding Godrevy beach.

Stone WWII pillbox guarding Godrevy beach.

I got back on the A30, drove across Bodmin and Dartmoor to reach the rolling chalklands of home.

4 thoughts on “Into the West: Cornwall

  1. I am excited that you will be investigating Cornwall. My mother’s family are Roddas. My favourite place is Godolphin too. Looking forward to your new adventures in excavation and archeology.

  2. Really enjoyed reading this Martin, lovely to be reminded of when I lived there; I have a painting of Godrevy beach above my fireplace

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